It's not a myth. They are among us -- in book stores, on movie screens, TV sets and billboards, in graphic novels and video games all across the land. The vampire genre has been with us since Dr. John Polidori's 1819 The Vampyre, followed by Bram Stoker's 1897 neck-biter, through the silent screen's Nosferatu (1922), the Bela Lugosi movies from the 1930s and '40s, Hammer Horror films ('50s and '60s,) TV's Dark Shadows (1966-1971), Anne Rice's best seller Interview with a Vampire (1976), and Buffy the Vampire Slayer series (1997-2001).
While each had singular popularity, vampires' fictional presence has never been greater than it is today. Stephanie Meyer is the current queen of vamp-lit with a reported 70 million copies of the Twilight series sold, followed by the super-hit Twilight movie. Tanya Huff, Charlie Huston, Rosemary Laurey and Drew Silver are among many other successful writers working the genre. Tracey Bateman adds a redemptive angle with a vamp series from WaterBrook, the evangelical Christian division of Random House. HBO's hit, True Blood, based on Charlaine Harris' The Southern Vampire Mysteries, is back for another season and this week, The CW Network airs The Vampire Diaries, based on the young adult books of L. J. Smith. And a 'vampire' Google click yields almost 18 million sites.
If fiction often reflects a nation's culture, why, oh-why-oh, do we have so many vampires, in so many places, sucking up so many entertainment dollars with such blazing success today? Feature writers tend to tie the current blood draining craze to two wars, terrorism and financial hard times.
"Times are always part of the pop culture recipe," says Robert Thompson, professor of television and pop culture at the University of Syracuse's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, but it's more about the modern media's creative skill to broaden the genre. "There's much more narrative opportunities if vampires can be evil monsters as well as romantic heroes," he continues. Anne Rice's Interview with a Vampire was the pivot point. Thompson calls it, "ground zero of the modern iteration of the vampire and expands the mythology into its modern iteration." Before Rice, the vampire story was a costume drama with limited literary scope. Rice, followed-up by Stephanie Meyer, "...modernized and domesticated the vampire, ripping away the traditional narrative from the black-caped, thickly Euro-accented, terror guy you run from, to the handsome, seductive bad-boy next door you want to sleep with," says Thompson. "Once you can let vampires next to us, and with us in our bedrooms, that opens up an extraordinary amount of narrative territory that we didn't have before," says the 50-something pop culture professor.
It didn't take 9/11, or a bad economy for us to be attracted to bad boys, he points out. We've always been drawn to them -- from Cagney and Coppola's gangsters, Brando on the motorcycle, Beatty and Dunaway's Bonnie & Clyde, Nicolas Cage's Con Air and Colin Farrell in most anything. They're the bad-boy archetype, so incredibly attractive, we can't resist them even though we know they're not good for us and will drain us -- literally. They're "mad, bad and dangerous to know," (Lady Caroline Lamb, refering to Lord Byron following their 1812 affair) True Blood's Bill Compton would like to drink his human love interest, Sookie, dry but he loves her so much he won't. "Doesn't everyone at some point want to be in a relationship that's that passionate?" asks Thompson.
While 1976's Interview with a Vampire was the literary shift from horror to hero, there was a major, and often overlooked, turn before then that made it easier for the public to accept Anne Rice's make-over. We're talking about Sesame Street and General Mills.
Starting in the early 70s, a new generation of kids learned to count from the helpful, vamp-fanged Count on Sesame Street. He may have looked and sounded like Bela Lugosi, but he had the heart and soul of a friendly teacher. Ca-ching! Just about the same time, General Mills put out its popular and very sweet kid's cereal, Count Chocula, featuring a guy with chocolate and marshmallows running through his tasty veins. Ca-ching, ca-ching. Let the morphing begin. Because vampires are so domesticated and appealing now, perhaps it's time to put True Blood's hunky vamp, Bill Compton, on the Wheaties Breakfast of Champions box. Ca-ching-ching-ching!